A sociologist dissects the contentious relationship among Diaspora Jews when discussing Israeli politics.
It’s happening more and more now — a Diaspora Jewish community is engulfed in controversy over Israel, reigniting a conflict that never seems to die down. It happened recently in Philadelphia, with an event entitled “What It Means To Be Pro-Israel” that was both praised and criticized for its negative treatment of supporters of J Street.
While this particular controversy was particular to the Philadelphia Jewish community, Jews across America weighed in. In the same way, controversies involving the San Francisco federation, Swarthmore College Hillel and others have drawn in the wider Jewish world.
At the heart of such controversies is the breakdown of the old consensus that Diaspora Jews should never publicly criticize Israel. While most Jews remain supporters of the Jewish state, increasingly diverse views are expressed on Israel’s current political course within the Zionist majority, and the non-Zionist camp is also increasingly vocal.
For some, the main problem is this growing diversity itself, particularly coming from the left of the political spectrum, which is seen as undermining Israel. Increasingly though, what worries many Jews is the bitterness and anger that accompany debates on Israel.
In my just-published book, Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community, I have tried to explain how Diaspora divisions over Israel have emerged and why they have become so difficult to navigate. I live in London, England, but this uncivil war is one that takes place in the United Kingdom, the United States and many other Diaspora Jewish communities.
There are differences, of course, from community to community. British Jewry, for example, is arguably a little more liberal than the American one. But what is the same is that Jews across the Diaspora find their differences over Israel extremely difficult to handle. The key symptom of the problem, I believe, is a widespread lack of civility, a difficulty in finding ways to communicate with others with whom one disagrees.
Why this incivility? The reason, I believe, is that this conflict is not just about Israel.
This was brought home to me when I hosted dinners at my home in London, to which Jewish leaders and opinion makers from across the political spectrum were invited to a confidential discussion on Israel. Conversation flowed freely at those dinners but what was striking was what we didn’t discuss: the settlements, the status of East Jerusalem, the Palestinians, the Arab minority in Israel, etc.
So what did we discuss? The topics that came up most regularly concerned British Jewish community, British Jewish identity and British Jewish politics. This doesn’t mean we weren’t discussing Israel, rather that “discussing Israel” in the Diaspora often means discussing how Israel affects Jewish life in the Diaspora.
So the divisions over Israel that have become such a feature of Diaspora Jewish life are only partially a result of different views on Israel’s future and current reality. The differences that are overlayed on top of these divisions are frequently the ones that spark the most emotions. These differences stem from different answers to perennially difficult questions: What should the boundaries of Jewish community be? Who gets to set those boundaries? Who represents Jews? How much does division endanger us? What causes anti-Semitism? And many more.
For better or worse then, fundamental questions about what being a Diaspora Jew means are being addressed through the lens of Israel. This, perhaps, explains why the resulting debates are often so angry and uncivil: they aren’t about some far-off land but about one’s everyday reality.
This is particularly the case in a relatively small and tight-knit Jewish community such as the British Jewish community. The bitterest conflicts often occur between people who know each other, who may have grown up together, who probably know many people in common. As is widely recognized, family conflicts are the most difficult to handle.
But while the intimate nature of much of the conflict is one of the reasons for its bitterness, it also provides the groundwork for a solution. There have been a number of attempts in the United States at addressing the conflict and promoting civility, such as those by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The most successful tend to be those, such as Project Reconnections in San Francisco and the Jewish Dialogue Group in Philadelphia, that emerge more organically on a local level, based on intimate conversations among community members.
This was my approach in the United Kingdom. The intimate conflicts between British Jews can, with hard work, be transformed into at the very least relations of mutual understanding.
Above all, addressing the Jewish community’s uncivil war requires taking personal responsibility. It’s when local Jewish conflicts, such as the one in Philadelphia, become national or international conflicts, that the situation spirals out of anyone’s control. That’s disempowering, and no conflict was ever solved that way.
Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and writer based in London. He can be found at: kahn-harris.org and @KeithKahnHarris on Twitter.